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NMU outlines statistics, plans for vaccination

$741M?in food assistance approved; small business lending legislation proposed

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University President Fritz Erickson held a virtual forum Wednesday to update the campus community on topics that included the university’s COVID-19 statistics and response, as well as enrollment and retention, the state budget process and plans for the fall semester.

He also responded to questions, with the most common inquiry relating to the chance of NMU’s Vielmetti Health Center obtaining COVID-19 vaccine doses.

“The Marquette County Health Department has been using the Northern Center for its vaccine clinics, and all indications are that’s gone smoothly,” Erickson said. “We’re also planning on being a vaccine center ourselves, to be able to provide vaccines for our faculty, staff and students. We have been advocating for that and we’re all set up for it.”

Erickson noted NMU has a new “ultra freezer” prepared for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines.

“So we’re just waiting in line for an allocation of the vaccine,” he said. “If and when that happens, we’ll certainly communicate that.”

NMU has doubled its monitoring efforts from the fall semester, testing about 300 people each week for the virus. Erickson said the mass testing event before classes began in January resulted in 13 admissions to Spalding Hall for quarantine/isolation, which was fewer than the 78 admitted after the fall Passport to Campus event.

Because Michigan’s epidemic order remains in effect through Feb. 21, Erickson said restrictions on campus visitors and other conforming measures will continue at least through that date, although his administration has started planning for the 2021-22 academic year.

“We are taking a very optimistic approach to fall,” Erickson said. “That is, we’re preparing to be fully in person for the start of semester, but simultaneously realizing we may have to scale back a little if the vaccination levels are low by the time we would open for fall classes.

“The consensus is that it’s easier to plan in person and roll back if we really need to than to plan remote and then realize we can go to in-person learning.”

NMU’s head count is down 7.4% this semester compared with last year, largely because of the pandemic, but graduate and Global Campus enrollments have increased. Freshmen admissions and applications for the fall semester are also up.

Erickson said there have been strides in an NMU Board of Trustees initiative to increase retention, and five embedded academic advisers have been hired to assist students in several departments.

When questioned about the possibility of additional furloughs or budget reductions, Erickson said they are not anticipated at this time, noting that enrollment and state funding have the biggest impacts on NMU’s budget. The state appropriations process begins with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer releasing her proposed budget this month, he said. The state House and Senate will follow with their own proposals, and a conference is typically required to finalize the agreement.

Erickson said that ideally, the state budget picture will be clear by late May so NMU can set tuition in early June. NMU will also receive federal COVID-19 stimulus funding, but is awaiting final regulations on how it can be used.

NMU’s COVID-19 reporting dashboard, found at nmu.edu/safe-on-campus/dashboard, showed there were 42 winter semester COVID-19 cases between Jan. 4 and Friday — 27 off-campus students, 10 on-campus students and five employees.

Also as of Friday, there were seven active cases that involve four off-campus students and three on-campus students.

Food assistance OK’d for state

Around 810,000 Michigan children whose access to nutritious school meals has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic will receive $741.6 million in assistance benefits their families can use to pay for food at stores or online.

Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced on Friday that the state received federal approval for a second round of Pandemic-EBT benefits.

Students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 are eligible if they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school and in-person learning is not available at their school or is not available on a full-time basis.

Pandemic-EBT will provide another way for students who do not have in-person classes to access food, along with Michigan Department of Education programs that provide meals to students at mobile and stationary locations.

Families will receive an estimated $127.53 monthly for each eligible child who has no in-person classes and attends a school that is fully virtual, and about $77.06 for each eligible child who attends a school with a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote learning.

Monthly benefits will vary based on the number of school days in each month.

Benefits are retroactive to September and will be paid through June. Payments will be made automatically, so families do not need to apply to receive the assistance. Households that already receive food assistance will receive the Pandemic-EBT payments on their Bridge Cards. Families that do not already receive food assistance will receive Pandemic-EBT cards in the mail, which they can use to purchase food.

Payments are expected to begin in late March. MDHHS is working with the Michigan Department of Education to collect the information from local school districts that will be needed to issue the benefits.

The food assistance benefits will go to Michigan families with students ages 5-18 who are enrolled in the Michigan Department of Education program for students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

Prior to receiving their EBT card, families will receive a letter from MDHHS describing how to use the card, how to set up a PIN and other information about food assistance benefits. The cards can be used much like a debit card for food purchased from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program retailers.

Legislation would support small business lending

U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, have reintroduced legislation to support lending to small businesses in the state and across the country that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Small Business Access to Capital Act would reauthorize and provide $10 billion in federal funding to the State Small Business Credit Initiative, which helps small businesses grow and create jobs.

SSBCI funds the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and other state-led lending programs that leverage private financing to help small businesses access needed capital.

“Since the onset of this pandemic, small businesses in Michigan and across the country have gone above and beyond to support their local communities during this critical time,” said Peters, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in a statement. “We must ensure small businesses have the resources they need to get through this pandemic.”

Peters said he has been proud to champion the initiative because it is a proven success in Michigan, and proper investment in the program could provide crucial support to small business owners across the nation.

“I’m pleased to help reintroduce this bill, and I look forward to working in a bipartisan manner to ensure that our small business owners receive the help they have earned,” he said.

Stabenow said the COVID-19 crisis has taken an “incredible toll” on small businesses in Michigan and the U.S.

“Given the stress of this pandemic on so many small businesses, access to capital is more important than ever,” Stabenow said in a statement.

Whitmer also issued a statement.

“Michigan has been a leader in utilizing the State Small Business Credit Initiative to boost investment and create jobs in hard times like these,” Whitmer said. “With $100 million in SSBCI funding, we’ve been able to leverage nearly $600 million in investments and helped businesses create or retain over 12,000 jobs across the state.”

Peters and Stabenow said Michigan is home to over 870,000 small businesses that employ nearly 50% of the work force in the state. Michigan previously exhausted all SSBCI federal funding, expending over $100 million that leveraged a total investment of nearly $600 million, including private capital.

This investment has helped businesses create or retain over 12,000 jobs across the state.

The Small Business Access to Capital Act — which Peters and Stabenow introduced in 2020– builds on the initial program’s success by providing an additional $5 billion in formula funds to all states based on the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 Peters championed as a member of the House of Representatives.

Michigan would receive over $260 million in new formula funding — more than every state except Florida and California.

The bill will also create a new, competitive $5 billion pool of funding for states that have already capitalized on funding from the 2010 program, equaling $10 billion in funding for the program in total.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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